A Coastal Star Special Report:
Rising Water: New signs of rising sea levels cause concern
Sea Level Rise: A lexicon
By Cheryl Blackerby
The battles over sea level rise have already started, and more are looming.
Environmental groups are suing local governments, skeptics argue with believers and scientists dispute politicians.
A court case in Miami is gaining nationwide attention because it may become a precedent for many more lawsuits over sea rise. Miami-Dade County plans to spend $1.5 billion to repair its sewage system, including overhauling three sewage plants. But the massive project does not take rising seas into account.
The environmental group Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper is suing the county, claiming sea rise will jeopardize the sewage plants long before their 50-year lifespan ends.
Pete Harlem, a Florida International University marine geologist who uses mapping technology to show sea rise projections, is an expert witness for the environmental group. Harlem predicts more lawsuits against government agencies that don’t plan for rising seas.
“You could hypothesize that county agencies could be sued after the fact because they haven’t done enough proactively to deal with problems caused by sea rise,” he said.
Lawyers should be preparing to deal with the battles over sea rise that are sure to come, but Harlem says they aren’t.
“When you go to (sea rise) meetings around here, there are certain professions that ought to be at them, and the legal profession is not there,” he said. “There’s a law in the state of Florida, for instance, that says if a property is under water a certain number of days a year, it belongs to the state. Lawyers are going to be needed to look at laws tied to boundaries and eminent domain laws that are going to be needed to pull people off the beaches that are in danger.”
And there will be the people in the Midwest who won’t have much sympathy for Floridians, he said.
“The cost of sea rise will have federal dollars involved, and eventually folks in Oklahoma are going to notice how much they’re spending on a beach they never go to. At that point it becomes a political hot potato.”
And there are the battles between doubters and believers among voters — and within the Florida Legislature.
State Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, has been a rare and vociferous voice in the capital about sea level rise. He says there hasn’t been a single meeting in Tallahassee about it, other than the one he held for delegations from Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Broward counties last year.
“There is utterly no leadership on the state level. You’ve got people who are either completely ignorant or they’re guided by the principles of corporate greed and wealth,” Pafford said. “As we speak, sea rise is happening. There’s salt water on the streets in Palm Beach County and today on Las Olas Boulevard in Broward. This is not typical, these things are not normal.”
It’s up to voters to elect officials who will address sea rise problems now and those waiting in the state’s future, he said.
Can’t wait until crisis
“The first thing we should be doing is protecting the fresh water we need for 7 million people (in southeast Florida) from saltwater intrusion,” Pafford said. “Over the last century, development and agriculture had an impact on a finite resource, and when we flush it out to sea and don’t bother conserving water like we should, we have a crisis. We can’t wait until our water supply is at a critical stage. Then it is too late.”
At community meetings such as the Sea Level Rise Symposium, held at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach in July, Pafford had strong words for voters: “At the end of the day, it’s not the corporate dollars that walk into the poll, it’s us. If you’re not doing your homework, then shame on you. We’re all controlling our own destiny.”
Bonnie Lazar, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty Services in Boca Raton and past president of the Realtors Association of the Palm Beaches, told the symposium audience that all county residents should keep in mind the importance of coastal homes and businesses.
“Many commercial hotels are on the beaches. They employ thousands of people in South Florida. They bring in thousands of tourists every year,” she said. “So, we need to find a way to make it economically sound and sustainable to maintain beachfront residences and commercial uses.”
Beachfront residents support restaurants, medical facilities and other businesses, Lazar said. “It’s not just a matter of real estate. And it’s not just a matter of enjoying the land. It’s a matter of sustaining the whole economy in the area. We obviously have to plan on building with great land use. However, building is still possible.”